My favourite place to be in the world is a tiny little cottage on Lady Lake in Papineau-Labelle Provincial Park, Quebec, about 90km northeast of my childhood home in Ottawa. I used to say it was in my top three favourite places of all time, but without really having a sense of what the other two were it has since become the de facto leader by virtue of being uncontested. Built, for the most part, by my father’s hands, with the help of many others, my brother in particular, but also my Mom and me, and numerous other friends, neighbours and family members, it is reminiscent, purposely so, of the traditional ‘hyttes’ found in my mother’s native Norway.
It sits nestled among expanses of crown land populated by endless maple, birch, and pine and several crystal clear freshwater lakes. Through the back window, strategically pruned trees offer a small glimpse of little Lady Lake, which is just two kilometres long by one kilometre wide. Several other cottages are lucky enough to find themselves perched on the side of this lake, but few enough that it often feels like we have it all to ourselves. Boats are limited to a maximum of 7 hp, eliminating any chance of water skiing, jet skiing or power boating. We have a canoe, two kayaks and a dock. It is blissfully quiet, save for the haunting calls of the common loon at dawn and dusk.
It’s not so much the physical place I adore, although I admit it tends to take my breath away each time I walk through the door, but instead it’s a feeling, a time, a history of shared experience with the people I love that makes it so special. No other place in the world can induce this sensation of sustained joy. Indeed the love affair was occasionally on the rocks during my teenage years, when I succumbed to mall surfing and peer pressure, occasionally opting out of weekends at the cottage. Thankfully, I outgrew that.
Perhaps it has attained such high status in my mind because I am not able to visit as often or as freely as I would like, having lived in Calgary for the last 15 years, pursuing Other Fun Things. I have the great fortune of being there on occasion, at least once a year, sometimes more, for a few days here and there, but it never seems often enough or long enough. As such, its allure has grown stronger with every passing season that I do not set foot inside that door. When I come home to Ottawa now, it is usually the only place I want to go. I have even driven straight from the airport to the cottage and back, without so much as a thought of stopping at home, although I only did this when my parents were out of town!
One bright light amid the frustrating darkness of recovering from this concussion has been the freedom to do as I choose. And I chose to go home, and to the cottage, in February. I’m usually in Europe in February, racing, where the cottage seems like an absolute impossibility; its very existence just a figment of my imagination. So to be there in February, with snow on the ground, the woodstove on and the wind howling outside was heavenly, and a little surreal.
Having initially hoped that I could go home and ski to my heart’s content in both Gatineau Park and at the cottage, it was a little disappointing that I had not yet recovered sufficiently to do so. But still, a rare gift to be at the cottage in February. Somehow, no matter the circumstance, being in that little corner of the world gives me the opportunity, concussion or not, to eliminate all the bustle around me and in my mind and just enjoy the calm.
One afternoon I ventured out for a short, painfully slow snowshoe. Ever careful of the need to go easy, a concept in sharp contradiction with every fibre of my being, it was, at the very least, an opportunity to be outside in the fresh air just doing something. Stopping to take a rest, or to take a picture, I enjoyed so much the moments of quiet that enveloped me then. Being there, doing that, I felt for a moment or two that my mind matched my surroundings: all those trees, just standing there, being still. If there is anything I can aspire to at the moment, it is simply to find that place in my mind where I feel… stillness.
As usual, packing up and leaving felt too soon, especially not knowing when I’ll make it back again. I’ve actually timed the trip, door to door, from the moment I leave my house in Calgary to the moment I jump in the lake, and it runs roughly 7 1/2 hours, give or take. Not bad if you don’t mind the carbon emissions. Maybe I’ll be back in the summertime, when the sun is hot, the lake is outrageously refreshing, the paddles are dripping and the loons are calling, and everyone is there. Sometimes, when I’m far away, I think of those trees, the water, that feeling of being there, and it all seems timeless and unchanging; still. I love that place.
On my last day at home I went skating on the Rideau Canal for the first time in at least 15 years. Several times during the week I’d driven up and down Colonel By Drive, looking wistfully at the throngs of skaters out to enjoy the final days of Winterlude. It is impossible for me to drive by the canal, frozen or not, without thinking of the day I tried speed skating for the very first time.
It was a blustery, cold day in the middle of February, circa 1988, and my Mom brought me down to the canal to give it a try. I stuffed my feet into some old speed skates, with the long steel runners, three sizes too small. I happily jumped onto the ice and into that glorious place where children go to discover something new; to attempt something they’ve never done before without fear or apprehension but rather with enthusiasm and an innocent sense of possibility. That moment transformed and defined my future.
So, in addition to the joy of being at the cottage, I was thrilled to be able to lace up and skate again on the Rideau Canal. Funnily enough, this time around in my Dad’s 30+ year-old hockey skates, with the old steel runners, three sizes too big. Contrary to my first foray onto that ice some 23 years ago, my excitement was tempered slightly with fearful thoughts of hitting a crack and smacking my head and apprehension that I might suffer the effects of the exercise later on. Truly the most debilitating symptom I’ve suffered with this injury is the sudden disappearance of any confidence I have in my ability to freely engage in the thing I love most, simply put – physical activity of any kind and the joy I feel when doing it. Sore neck, the fog, and fatigue aside, it is the loss of that feeling that breaks my heart in two.
As I stepped onto the ice some of that apprehension slowly melted away and I loosened up a little. Of course I did not forget how to skate! Cracks be damned, I was out there skating and it was fun. For a short while I felt really really happy. I calculated that in my prime, on my speed skates, I could be able to cover the entire length of the canal, 7.8km, in roughly 10 minutes. Probably a ridiculous prediction considering there are no corners with which to gain valuable speed through centrifugal force, and not taking into account wind or lots of friction from what is likely pretty slow ice, but then, physics never really was my strong suit.
In my heart of hearts I do believe that sometime soon, or a little less soon, but sometime nonetheless, all of this will seem like a bad dream and I’ll be back to doing the things I love to do. Sometimes it seems unlikely, especially on days where I randomly feel worse than the day before and occasionally spiral downwards, but deep down there is a little root keeping me grounded and optimistic that I will get better. It’s kind of like I’ve once again unwillingly left the cottage, and even though I’m gone, all those trees are still there, just being still. But I leave knowing that some way, somehow, I will always find a way back to Lady Lake again, no matter what.